Life in the Minors

The Clown Prince of Baseball
By Max Patkin and Stan Hochman

I had seen Max Patkin a few times on TV or in news clips. A few seconds here, a short blurb there.  I never gave much thought to seeing him perform live and in person since he worked minor league games in far-away outposts.

The thought of seeing Max Patkin in person changed in 1993 when he was scheduled to appear at a New Britain Red Sox game at Beehive Field in New Britain, CT on August 19th.  With camera, tape recorder, notebook, press pass and a couple of kids in tow, I trekked down to Connecticut. To my dismay, Patkin’s consecutive game streak, somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000+ games, came to an end that night.  Max had severely sprained his ankle at Fenway Park the night before. He was there on an off-night to visit with old pal Johnny Pesky.  Some people have the luck of the Irish with him. I guess with me, it’s the luck of the Polish, to make the journey only once in your life, only to have the event canceled.  I never did have the opportunity to catch Max Patkin act in New Britain in subsequent years.

It's the Bottom of the 9th for the Clown Prince of Baseball, "A Red Sox Journal", August, 1993, Vol. IX No 6.

The front office staff of the New Britain Red Sox was very helpful and obliging..  We talked about Patkin’s career and they gave me several promotional photographs.  I telephoned Patkin sometime later in the off-season.  He answered the phone and was very willing to talk.  We had a nice chat about baseball and his career and he mentioned that he had an autobiography. I was surprised that I never saw the book anywhere, and learned soon after that it was out of print.

After missing out on Patkin’s New Britain performance, and subsequent to our telephone conversation, the book intrigued me.  It was like being on a mission, to periodically search the bargain bins for the book.  After several years of searching, I found that Edwin R. Hamilton Bookseller of Falls Village, Connecticut, had two copies in stock.  One of those books quickly became mine, at a price less than ten dollars (including shipping).

Max Patkin’s autobiography did not disappoint me.  It was pretty much what I expected – an easy read. It wasn’t a literary masterpiece.  I read it in one night.  It read like it was one guy talking in to a tape recorder, talking from the heart, about his life in baseball for 60 years.

Patkin’s life as the Clown Prince of Baseball was far from glamorous. No one took Patkin very serious, thanks in part to his act and his looks.  According to baseball owner Bill Veeck, Patkin looked like he had been put together by a guy who couldn’t read the instructions very well.  LA Times columnist Jim Murray once wrote, “Someone had started at the top, and finished in the middle.  For one thing, they forgot to put the bones in.  He looked as if they found him on a broomstick in a cornfield.”

 In describing the loneliness of being constantly on the road, Patkin’s corny sense of humor also came out.

”Stayed in a thousand lonely rooms, staring up at the ceiling where the fan out to be, sweaty and tired, homesick, worried, thumbing through the train schedule, reading it by the dim light of a cracked lamp. I’ve stayed in hotel rooms so small, the mice were hunch-backed.  I stayed in rooms so small, you had to step outside to change your mind.”

One way to pass the time was to gamble, on the golf course or in a friendly card game.  By 1951, Patkin had saved about $50,000 from ballpark appearances, dance exhibitions and sport shows.  Within ten years, he had gambled it all away.  He asked for advances on his appearances of $250, with $35 - $50 guaranteed up front.  Patkin was booked from May to August, with plenty of appearances lined up in the 57 different minor leagues.

Despite the loneliness and constant travel, Patkin somehow managed to meet someone special and fall in love.  Judy Oberndorm was 17 years younger than Patkin and a cigarette girl in a nightclub.  Patkin described her as “a tall blonde with big bazooms”.  The marriage didn’t last as Mrs. Patkin started drinking and got hooked on Percodan. She also got hooked on many of Patkin’s best friends, having several affairs with them. Among here male friends were gangsters, drug dealers and hoodlums, according to Patkin. The marriage came to an end when Patkin found her in bed with her 17 year-old handyman.Mrs. Patkin responded to all of this by beating Max silly over the head with a hammer.  Patkin had committed to attending a testimonial banquet for Tommy Lasorda.  No one took Joe Garagiola, the master of ceremonies, serious, when he introduced the heavily bandaged Patkin.“There’s Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball, he just got out of the hospital, his wife busted his head open with a ballpeen hammer.”Everyone laughed and thought it was a joke to see Patkin sitting there with a turbin around his head.

Women played a big role in Patkin’s life.  He loved to dance and with his gangly frame and big nose, dancing was the best way to attract the opposite sex.  He taught Susan Sarandon how to jitterbug for their  nightclub scene in Bull Durham.

I’ve brought laughter into so many ballparks, met so many warm, wonderful, fascinating people.

Like the fat madam in Klamath Falls, Oregon. She ran a house of ill repute.  Came to most of the home games, bringing three or four of her best-looking girls, including a stunning redhead that caught my eye.
She loved the game and she had a standing offer, anybody on the home team who hit a home run got a freebie at her place. …I got to town, asked him (the manager of the home team) how the club was doing.  He said, “We’re leading the league in homers.”

Me, I didn’t get a freebie.  The redhead made me pay $5.

Patkin made no bones about today’s modern professional athlete. He saw the change in grown men, from humble and personable minor leaguers to arrogant and self-centered major league jerks.  Patkin was turned off by the Olympic “Dream Team” basketball squad, complaining about the warm-up suits they wore to the medal ceremony, because it conflicted with their individual contracts with competitors.

In baseball, all you ever hear are owners squawking about how much money a guy is making, and whether he’s earning it or not.  And the players don’t go out of their way to relate to the fans either.

You get a creep like Vince Coleman who throws a firecracker towards a crowd waiting around outside Dodger Stadium. And for days he can’t bring himself to say he was sorry.

Max Patkin died of a heart aneurysm in October of 1999. Throughout his life he made people laugh. Some of it was intentional, as part of his routine an act. Other times, he was dead serious, especially when he talked about the hardships or tragedies of his life.  But it was difficult to take him serious. As a result, he was always trying to bring people to laughter, regardless of the event or subject matter.

Reading Patkin’s biography put closure on some unfinished business – the cancellation of his appearance in New Britain, Connecticut in 1993.  The only knock on this book is that events such as this one are mentioned 3 or 4 times throughout the book. I would have expected the book to be a little bit more organized and less redundant.

With today’s cartoon-character mascots throughout the minor leagues, I doubt there will ever be another Clown Prince of Baseball.

Book review by Joe Kuras

It's the Bottom of the 9th for the Clown Prince of Baseball, "A Red Sox Journal", August, 1993, Vol. IX No 6.